When he took a pen and paper out to the back lawn at his then-home in Epping in Sydney some 30 years ago, John Williamson wasn’t planning to write a song that would become an anthem. As he recalls in his autobiography, Hey, True Blue, And that was exactly what happened.
“I need a song about sticking up for y’mates; about fair-dinkum Aussies. It’s for my new TV show True Blue Aussies,” was the only brief Williamson received from his friend, John Singleton. What resulted was “True Blue,” a song that would become an Aussie icon.
“True Blue” was the theme for the 1986 “Australian Made” campaign, is often performed at sporting events and you would be hard pressed to find an Aussie who has never heard of it—even if it’s just the first three words. Williamson even performed the song at the public memorial service of yet another Aussie icon, the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin.
Williamson tells me he’s forever grateful for the circumstances that led to him writing the song, espec-ially when “I thought at that time, [the phrase] ‘true blue’ was a bit corny. The word was used to sell cars and I often wondered if it really had prestige.”
History, of course, has shown that Williamson turned that all around. The song has “underlined the fact that ‘true blue’ is about good people you can trust . . . it’s really about the old-fashioned way of life when people did care for one another and you could trust one another,” he says.
And it’s a song that Williamson holds dear. About all the companies who have ever offered him money to promote their product, he writes in his book, “While I’m living ‘True Blue’ is my calling card, not a song representing some national grocery store or food item. If ‘True Blue’ is to remain true blue it must never represent anything else. I will protect the song forever.”
My phone interview with Williamson coincides with his national tour to promote both his book Hey True Blue and his fiftieth album, Honest People. Speaking to me from his hotel room in Melbourne, Williamson has that quintessential laid-back Aussie drawl I practically heard when reading the book to prepare for this interview.
After an initial confusion with the phones where I was either put on hold or hung up on, I finally get to speak with Williamson, who tells me serenely, “Relax, we’ve got plenty of time,” and chats with me like he means it. Considering his publicist had scheduled only 15 minutes and the fact he probably had back-to-back interviews, it was a gesture that demonstrated his care for others.
From “Galleries of Pink Galahs” to “Girt By Sea” (featured in Honest People), there is another thing that Williamson deeply cares about—the Australian bush. The Australian bush, he says, is a part of him and speaks to him.
“It’s my backyard, it’s my place, it’s me. I sing about it and I’m proud of it,” he says. “I try to write stuff that would introduce the idea of experiencing the bush a bit, especially the old bush where it has never been cleared. That to me is what excites me.”
Reading his words in Hey True Blue and hearing him speak so effusively about it, Williamson came close to convincing me I needed to drop everything and move to the country, immediately.
“You’ve got to know the bush to love it. You’ve got to be in there rather than standing back and looking from a distance. If you get in amongst it and sit down and be quiet, all sorts of birds will come through and you’ll notice amazing trees . . . there’s a lot of stuff hidden because in a forest you can’t see the big trees for the little ones, so it’s interesting to go in there.”
Such is the extent of Williamson’s love for the Australian bush, he isn’t content to simply write and sing about it. He wants people to realise just how precious and rare that piece of Australian nature is, and how important it is for us to protect it. At the same time, he isn’t afraid to talk about the responsibility we all have for the natural world.
“I couldn’t live in Australia if there’s no real bush left . . . and we have to be careful we don’t destroy the very thing that is our proudest heritage. We are becoming more cosmopolitan in the cities and one day, we will start to wonder what the difference is between any city."
“What right have we got to wipe out a species? That’s what we’re doing with the remaining habitat,” he says. “And psychologically, I think we can’t survive without the beauty of the world. To exaggerate, if it all ends up in concrete and bricks and ordered parks where you might have trees from all over the world, but if they’re no longer in their natural environment, I just think people will go crazy.”
Such is his passion for protecting the environment that in 1992, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for “service to Australian country music and in stimulating awareness of conservation issues.”
For someone who has been in the business for more than 40 years (Williamson is 68), his message hasn’t changed—love the Australian spirit, character and landscape. “What is Australian is the people out there battling and trying to make a living out of farming. . . . Where would we be without the people who make the food, grow the food and the hardworking people out in the country? That’s what I write about.”
He is also thankful for all the attention he’s still getting, musing that it “reminds me of what it was like in 1986 when my first big album was out. It’s nice that at this stage of my career, everyone is still as interested.”
Between the song “True Blue,” his book, Hey True Blue, and his latest album, Honest People, I can’t help but get the impression that being authentic and genuine are significant qualities for Williamson.
“I think that love and honesty are what’s going to save the world, not guns,” he tells me in response to my observation. “I think it’s a great thing to promote. It makes you feel good!”
After 50 albums—“It’s hard to believe because that’s more than one album a year!”—and after looking back on his life thanks to the process of writing Hey True Blue, Williamson says, “It made me realise how much time has passed, but I still feel quite fresh about it all. I’m a little bit tired of airports and stuff like that, but I still enjoy writing a new song as I ever did and I find it probably easier, if anything.”
When asked if his fans can expect more albums, Williamson says if he wanted to, he could do more, but “it’s not the only thing I want to do in my life.” What he’s looking forward to, is getting to “enjoy my age and potter around.”
That includes spending more time with the land he spent decades singing about and returning to his farming roots, rearing some chickens and growing a veggie patch.